Wednesday, February 27, 2008

White Guys with Mics

I hate to title this post "White Guys with Mics" because it serves a dual purpose. First, it's a commentary on the recently passed William F. Buckley and his legacy as a verbose and dedicated voice for conservative America. Second, it's a look at the present state of political voices in America.

William F. Buckley was the son of an oil baron and a true blue Yale man. He served in the US Army and even briefly in the CIA before turning to a career in writing. Buckley was founder of the National Review and is credited with the wave of conservative enthusiasm which swept Ronald Reagan to national prominence. With the mass medium of television exploding throughout America, Buckley found himself a niche as a chat host, generally taking the conservative side against a more left leaning guest. This format is the preferred context for modern media treatments of political and social issues on every major network, although the quality of both host and guest has noticeably deteriorated since the heyday of Buckley and company.

In the following clip, Buckley interviews Gore Vidal and is confronted by Vidal as a crypto-Nazi, to which Buckley responds by calling Vidal a queer and threatening to assault him. I think this represents a low moment in television history and certainly is below both of these men. Notice that this clip comes from ABC.

Another interesting television clip, available via the magic of YouTube, is the now famous conversation between Buckley and Noam Chomsky. Buckley's smug, affected accent intrudes repeatedly on the mathematical and academic tone of Chomsky as he tries to make each point. This technique is now standard practice by the O'reillys and Hannitys of the world, although rather than interjecting rudely with well thought out counterpunches, the new breed simply shout shut up and gesticulate wildly.

The clash of ideologies that Buckley brought to television has continued in its basest form today. Notice in the Chomsky clip that the audience are all young, college-aged people. Can you imagine this type of conversation holding the attention of that age group today? Possibly, but I'm a bit cynical about that prospect. Increasingly, the decline of literacy and the fragmentation of attention spans would preclude a discussion of this kind from capturing a young audience, and certainly wouldn't be made available to a mainstream television audience.

Talking things into the modern media environment, we now see a dumbing down of the national dialog on every network in every time slot across the board. I don't watch Fox, but the Bill O'Reillys and Sean Hannitys of the world live on their air. Anyone's who pays attention to the news is assaulted by their divisive distortions of reality. From "Outfoxed":

This type of behavior is not limited to Fox, however. MSNBC is also a famous stop for the hyperactive punditry. If anyone has ever seen Chris Matthews, his particular brand of veiled misogyny and smirking (spitting) rhetoric is enabled by fellow white guy Tim Russert, who is less excitable but equally in love with his own voice. For the record, I watch MSNBC and I watch both Matthews and Russert every week. They have access to the guests that are important to the national dialog and while I have to hold my nose to watch them, I want to see what these guests have to say. Here's a little snippet of Chris Matthews:

On CNN we have self-proclaimed "independent populist" Lou Dobbs, who has taken on the role of champion of the middle class. His rhetoric is self-indulgent and arrogant. Dobbs typically beings a female correspondent into the studio, sitting her to his left while he stands, towering in front of an American flag video wall, and asks for the woman's opinion. Following her report, Dobbs will ignore everything she has said in favor of spinning the topic into his own diatribe. I can't watch his program for more than the 3 or 4 minutes it takes to witness this phenomenon, but it repeats itself ad nauseum, day in and day out.

In this clip, a personal favorite, Dobbs interviews Candy Crowley about Barack Obama's alleged plagiarism and his response to the charges. The part of this clip you'll want to watch is Dobbs' typically smug assertion that Obama and Deval Patrick were devaluing Martin Luther King, Jr's words. He completely misunderstood that both men saying, "I have a dream....just words?" closes with a rhetorical question mark, rather than a period or exclamation point. The point of their speeches was to point out that words have tremendous significance and serve to inspire us to worthy causes. Dobbs' thick head can't quite get that and he assumes, for some reason, that the speeches were intended to devalue words. He signs off to an incredulous Candy her face at the very end of the clip. She looks like she's thinking, "Wait...wha..?"

So, without getting into the vast landscape of radio white guys out there (often far worse than their TV counterparts) hiding behind their microphones, suffice it to say that while William F. Buckley may have rubbed people the wrong way with his conservative sensibilities, vocal affectations, and holier-than-thou persona, the level of national dialog that we witnessed under his "care" was a far better alternative to the numbskulls that we are faced with today. Buckley will be some way.


Matthew Hennessey said...

Is the title of this post a "wink wink" strategy that on the outside says, "What?! I can't say these guys are white? What's wrong with that? They are. So what?" but inside says, "Hey, fellow Democrats, unite!"

If so, how do you explain this?

I find your linkage of Bill Buckley's television appearances with the current tenor of the cable news channels intriguing, if a bit tenuous. As his obituary in the New York Times noted, Buckley authored more than 50 books and his collected columns would fill another 45 more. All done while editing a bi-weekly magazine, hosting the longest running public affairs program on television and birthing a nation-changing political philosophy out of his head. Impressive feats by themselves; considered together, herculean.

No O'Rielly or Hannity or Olberman or Matthews could tie the man's shoes - so your "basest form" point is taken. But laying the blame at the feet of Firing Line, is a bit like blaming the Monkees on the Beatles.

Mike Plugh said...

No, the title of this post is very straightforward. I think that each of the featured characters in this story are typical of the voices we see in the media that frame the public debate. They are all white men. They are all generally older white men.

Buckley, Hannity, O'Reilly, Matthews, Russert, Dobbs, Blitzer, Cooper, Stephanopolous, Olbermann, Moyers, Lehrer, Williams, Rather, Jennings, Cronkite, Hume, McLaughlin, and on and on and on.

Some of those men do a good job and others are destructive. I leave it to the particular ideologies to fight it out over what they feel on the issue.

My point, in particular, about Buckley is that he was superior in intellect and ability to all of the modern versions of the chat program that he hosted, but still dragged issues into the mud in his own way. He called Gore Vidal a queer and threatened to assault him. He also supported McCarthyism and opposed the Civil Rights Movement on a number of fronts.

The modern punditry is as dumbed down as the rest of the mass media, but Buckley wasn't always above the fray. He was just more eloquent and prolific. I don't blame him for what's transpires, but I think there's a relationship.